Aleph

Kind of, sort of, or utterly forsaken? (Psalm 119:8)

“I will observe your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me
” (Psa. 119:8 NRSV).

With this verse, we finish the first of 22 stanzas of Psalm 119 where each of the eight verses begins with the same Hebrew letter.  For this first stanza, the introductory letter is the first in the alphabet, Aleph.

This verse begins with the direct object particle (‘et), literally “your statutes I will observe”.  But it could have begun with “I will observe” since the Hebrew word that translates into this phrase also begins with Aleph (see 119:7), so the psalmist is here once again emphasizing God’s laws.

The verse has two parts.  First, the psalmist commits to “obey” (NIV), “keep” (ESV, KJV) or “observe” (NRS) God’s statutes, from the Hebrew verb shamar.  Next, the psalmist requests (commands?) God to not utterly forsake them.  The psalmist doesn’t make clear if there is a correlation between the obedience of the psalmist and the lack of divine forsakenness, but it seems implied.

I wonder though, do we normally think about degrees of forsakenness?  How forsaken were you?   A little forsaken, sort of forsaken, or utterly forsaken?  Isn’t forsakenness an all or nothing enterprise?  I remember my supervisor in Oxford (Susan Gillingham) pointing out on one of my papers that the word “unique” doesn’t require the qualifier “totally”.  Something is either unique or it is not.  There’s no gray.

The same is true of forsakenness.  But apparently the psalmist wanted to make it totally, completely and utterly clear.  Don’t forsake me.  The psalmist was afraid of not being in relationship with God.  And the psalmist knew that following God’s word would bring God close.

Have you ever been “kind of forsaken”?

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Righteous! (Psalm 119:7)

I will praise you with an upright heart,
when I learn your righteous ordinances
” (Psa. 119:7 NRSV).

In verse 6, the psalmist spoke of shame-avoidance, in verse 7 the theme is being righteous.  Based on the righteousness focus, it sounds like the psalmist has a “holier-than-thou” attitude, but there’s more to it than that.

The psalmist has a plan.  First learn YHWH’s righteous ordinances, then praise YHWH with a heart that has apparently been purified by knowledge of said ordinances.  (The words here for upright (yosher) and righteous (mishpat), while in English sound similar, aren’t from the same Hebrew root.)   The psalmist expects God to help out as an instructor in teaching his laws to this eager pupil, assuming that God would be motivated to teach in order to receive praise.

Let’s face it, most Christians don’t have a favorable impression of legal texts like Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but God’s laws should lead to praise.  The psalmist understood that.  They help make us righteous, which should lead to worship.

In the words of the esteemed surfer-dude sea turtle Crush from Finding Nemo: “Righteous!”

Shame avoidance (Psalm 119:6)

“Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all your commandments” (Psa. 119:6 NRSV).

Psalm 119 is the longest prayer in Scripture.  The psalmist addresses God directly.  The word “your” appears 212 times in 176 verses in the ESV translation (in Hebrew possessive pronouns are usually added as a suffix to the end of the noun being possessed).  Throughout the prayer, the psalmist speaks of blessings that come upon a person focused on God and God’s word.  The blessing of verse 6 focuses on shame avoidance.

(The English word, “Then” at the beginning of the verse comes from the Hebrew word, ‘az, which begins with the Hebrew letter, Aleph otherwise it couldn’t fit into this Aleph section of the psalm.)

In the previous verse, the psalmist wished for help in being steadfast to keep God’s statutes.  Now the results of that wish are revealed.  A fixation on God’s commandments prevents shame.  It’s hard to know exactly what the psalmist’s shame involved, but for those of us who are familiar with shame, we can guess.  Public humiliation, embarrassment, brutal defeat in a competitive context, having your book ripped to shreds in the blogosphere (speaking hypothetically, of course).  (I avoid shame by using a spell-checker–just found out that I had misspelled “embarrassment”–apparently many bloggers and emailers  don’t share my spell-shame-a-phobia.)

Now you might decide that this verse doesn’t really apply to you.  If you don’t mind shame, you don’t need to focus on God’s words.  If you enjoy utter humiliation, then don’t worry about God’s commands.  Ah, but if you’re trying to avoid those things, fix your eyes on God and God’s laws.  Sounds like good advice.  Blogging through Psalm 119, one verse each Sunday, is one way for me to stay focused on God and his words.  I hope you come along for the ride (only 170 more verses).

What do you do to avoid shame? 

A wish for “captivity” (Psalm 119:5)

“O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes” (Psalm 119:5).

The psalmist exposes the desire of their heart here.  It’s not exactly a prayer, more of a wish, a wish that they can keep God’s statutes.

The Hebrew word translated here as “O that” is ‘ahalay.  (As you surely realize by now, it must start with the letter Aleph to begin a verse in this Aleph section of the acrostic.)

The only other place the word ‘ahalay appears in the Hebrew Bible is when the  unnamed Israelite servant girl tells her mistress, Naaman’s wife, “O that my Lord were with the prophet in Samaria.  Then he would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3).  Naaman, the Aramean general has leprosy, and in the spirit of Jesus’ command to love your enemies (Matt. 5:43), this servant girl wishes (the NAS translates ‘ahalay here as “I wish”) that the man who kidnapped her and took her from her family gets healed.  Naaman listens to her and eventually gets healed (2 Kings 5:4-15).  An amazing story.

Similarly, the psalmist wishes to remain captivated by God’s laws.  What does that tell us about the psalmist?

1) The psalmist prefers captivity to God’s statutes over freedom.

2) The psalmist knows that help will be needed to keep God’s statutes.

3) The psalmist believes that God is interested, willing and able to help the psalmist fulfill their wish.

God, make me more like the psalmist.  What wishes do you express to God?